Aardvark digs in to rid the world of landmines

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The Independent Online
A British firm is at the forefront of clearing the estimated 119 million landmines still hidden underground. Steve Boggan rode in the 'Aardvark' - which works by simply driving over them.

There were enough plastic explosives underneath us to blow up 10 cars or, as one of the munitions experts put it, to throw a Mini Metro 30ft into the air.

"Five pounds will usually destroy a car," said David Clark, doing mental arithmetic in the claustrophobic armour-plated cabin of the Aardvark. "There are five kilos underneath us. But you shouldn't feel a thing."

The explosives weren't directly underneath the cabin. They were about 10ft away at the front of a machine that is making huge strides in the hazardous - indeed terrifying - business of mine clearance. The charge was in front of the Aardvark's blast shield and below the rotating chains that cut into the earth, churning it up and detonating the hidden explosives.

Suddenly, there was a huge blast that rocked the 13-ton vehicle and plunged us into darkness as soil and stones rained down on the cab. But Mr Clark, 32, a former Royal Engineer, was right. We didn't feel a thing.

The Aardvark is the brainchild of David Sadler, a 58 year old accountant who used to make a living selling explosives to the oil industry. In 1984, however, he realised that there was a desperate need for new innovations to help deal with the 119 million landmines still concealed after conflicts dating back to the Second World War.

The result was the Aardvark, a vehicle that detonates mines by thrashing them with its chains. Many of its features date back to the last war, but its armour plating and bullet-proof windows make it the most advanced mine-clearing vehicle that has ever been invented.

Since its development, more than 100 Aardvarks have been sold in 32 countries. Costing only pounds 250,000 each, they have been bought by governments, armies and aid agencies, but since the death of Diana, the telephone in the company's remote office at Insch, 25 miles north of Aberdeen, hasn't stopped ringing.

"We have been inundated with calls from people who want to begin clearing up the mess left behind after wars all over the world," said Mr Sadler. "Diana's death certainly concentrated people's minds. Now the public at large are much better informed about landmines and they want their governments to do something about them."

According to the Red Cross, 2,000 people are maimed or killed by landmines every month - or once every 20 minutes. More than 70 countries are now affected, the worst being Iran (16 million mines), Angola (15 million), Iraq (10 million), Afghanistan (10 million), Cambodia (10 million), Bosnia- Herzegovina (up to 6 million) and even Egypt, which is thought to have up to 23 million, many left over from the El Alamein campaign during the Second World War.

Using traditional methods, it would be virtually impossible to clear the world's mines. Utilising either mine detectors - which do not work with plastic mines - or simply prodding with knives, it can take a man a day to cover up to 36 square yards. The Aardvark can clear a 10ft-wide path two-thirds of a mile long each hour. And, whereas the UN estimates that one person is killed for every 5,000 mines cleared, none of its operatives has ever been injured.

"It's wonderful to be able to make something like this that armies buy but which actually saves lives," said Mr Sadler. "In areas that have been mined, life grinds to a halt. No one will farm their fields, entire areas lie empty. But when we clear them, life gets back to normal. It's a wonderful sight.

"In Afghanistan, the farmers who hadn't been on their land for years, followed behind the Aardvark where it had churned up the land, and they simply sowed seeds in our wake."